Exploring the communication of climate change socioscientific issues in aquarium exhibits




Idema, Jenn

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Anthropogenic pressures humans have placed on the planet create complex, socially embedded scientific problems that are not easily solved. Aptly known as socioscientific issues (SSI), these issues are often controversial because their open-ended nature is greatly influenced by the multiple socio-cultural dimensions and entities involved. As the environmental issues of today continue to grow, so too does the need for a more scientifically literate society. However, creating a science literate society is challenging when the average person spends less than 5% of their life in a formal science classroom. Reaching people in informal places they visit to learn about science is an important step toward improving scientific literacy. The socioscientific issues framework (SSIF) is an instructional approach used in formal classrooms designed to improve science literacy by engaging students in real-world science contexts, while also increasing development of questioning, argumentation, empathy, and moral reasoning skills. Because of its cross-disciplinary nature and societal impacts, this project explores using the SSIF as a lens for understanding how informal science institutions (ISI) communicate SSIs as part of their science education mission. To accomplish my research goals, first, I adapted the SSIF for exhibit design application in informal settings. Then, I used the updated SSIF to guide an exploration of in-person and virtual aquarium exhibits focused on communicating the science of climate change. Through a survey of 420 in-person exhibits across nine countries, I found only three in-person and one virtual exhibit featured climate change messaging throughout the exhibit while 30 in-person and 20 virtual exhibits mention climate change or a human-induced impact associated with climate change at least once. None of these SSI exhibits presented climate change science in ways that warranted being classified as representative of a holistic SSIF instructional approach. I documented patterns in exhibit communication approaches across aquariums. I found a disconnect between theory and implementation of best practices. This project provides insight into how existing exhibits in aquariums communicate the SSI of climate change as well as identifies what aspects of the SSIF can be found in those exhibits, contributing to this gap in the literature. SSIs are complex issues and while ISIs may want to present the issues such as climate change to visitors, they may not choose or be able to for a variety of reasons. The intention of my project is to bring to the surface the need for communicating climate change and other SSIs in contexts local and relevant for visitors. Incorporating the SSIF into the places people visit to learn science outside of the classroom (i.e., ISIs) has the potential to contribute to a science literate society, but only if exhibits are effectively designed.



aquariums, socioscientific issues, socioscientific issues framework, climate change, informal science institutions, exhibits


Idema, J. (2021). Exploring the communication of climate change socioscientific issues in aquarium exhibits (Unpublished dissertation). Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.


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